The ruling Chinese Communist Party has hit out at international criticism of a ban on a tiny, pro-independence political party in Hong Kong, amid public protests and warnings from rights groups that the city's government has breached its own commitment to political and civil rights.
Hong Kong on Monday formally banned the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), which boasted only around a dozen members, in a move strongly criticized by rights groups and pro-democracy politicians for curbing freedom of speech in the former British colony.
Using colonial-era legislation once used to target "triad" criminal gangs in the city, the government said the move was aimed at "safeguarding national security, public security, public order, and other people's rights and freedoms," Chinese state media reported.
Several groups led by the League of Social Democrats protested the ban outside police headquarters on Tuesday, including some holding pro-independence banners.
The HKNP ban came after Hong Kong police said the party and its leader Chan Ho-tin, also known as Andy Chan, posed an "imminent threat" to China’s territorial integrity and national security, because Chan had refused to rule out the use of force or civil disobedience.
Police listed Chan's pro-independence activities, which include "infiltrating" secondary schools via his party's "political enlightenment" program, publishing articles, taking part in elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), and various fund-raising and campaigning activities on the streets of Hong Kong.
The HKNP's official website was unavailable on Tuesday, with social media reports indicating it had been subject to a takedown order by Hong Kong police.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said certain countries and institutions have made "numerous and irresponsible remarks" about the ban.
"Certain countries and institutions have been making numerous and irresponsible remarks regarding [Hong Kong's] ban on the HKNP," Geng said. "We would like to express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to this."
"We call on these institutions and countries to respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to stop interfering in Hong Kong's affairs and China's internal affairs under the pretext of freedom of speech and freedom of association," he said.
On Monday, the U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) voiced concern over the banning of the HKNP.
"We are concerned by the decision of the Hong Kong SAR Government to prohibit the HKNP. This is the first time a party has been banned under the Societies Ordinance since the handover," the FCO said in a statement.
"The UK does not support Hong Kong independence, but Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and its rights and freedoms are central to its way of life, and it is important they are fully respected," the statement said.
Call to reverse ban
Meanwhile, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an immediate reversal of the ban.
"Human rights in Hong Kong have been on the ropes in recent years, but this ban is a body blow to Hong Kong people’s ability to express their views, join with like-minded people, and run for office," HRW's China director Sophie Richardson said.
"Authorities in Hong Kong should immediately reverse this small-minded decision that has far-reaching implications," she said.
Hong Kong police acknowledged that the party had not committed any violent acts but considered a ban necessary as “preventive measures” because “the possibility of HKNP using force to achieve its goal” could not be ruled out, HRW said.
Under the United Nations-endorsed Johannesburg Principles governing national security and human rights law, restrictions to freedom of speech on the grounds of national security aren't legitimate if they seek to "entrench a particular ideology," rather than to stave off a violent threat of a military or internal nature.
In New York, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the government was "concerned" by the ban on the HKNP.
"The US supports the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association," Pompeo said in a statement. "These are core values we share with Hong Kong, and that must be vigorously protected," he said.
Violations of rights
According to HRW, the ruling Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong government have also violated their citizens' right to seek political office by insisting on vetting election candidates, and by disqualifying both sitting lawmakers and potential election candidates based on their peacefully expressed views.
"To ban a group of people exercising their basic rights sadly parallels what has long happened in the mainland," Richardson said. "Authorities have no business banning political parties simply because they disagree with their peaceful views."
Meanwhile, local media in Hong Kong noted the apparent emergence of a "Hong Kong Communist Party," citing a Facebook post that appeared a day after the ban on the HKNP.
"The owner wouldn't reveal how many people are involved, but said a drive was under way to recruit more members," government broadcaster RTHK reported on its website.
According to a Facebook post available via the "Hong Kong Communist Party" page on Tuesday, the "party" is inspired by the political thought of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
However, a section of the post likening President Xi to Jehovah suggested that the creation of the "party" might be a satirical reaction to the ban on the HKNP.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.